Book Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (First published in 2017)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Named the Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction in 2018, Less follows the misadventures of Arthur Less, a white, middle-aged gay writer whose literary success – or general lack thereof – is encapsulated in the phrase “one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”, as he runs away from his problems (i.e., the wedding of an ex-boyfriend of nine years).

Like any book lover, I love reading books about books and books about writers, especially if, like Less, it promises to be a sly critique of the literary establishment while gently poking fun at the insecurities and ambitions of writers. On this count, it definitely delivers. Less, a “moderately successful” but ultimately obscure writer, takes odd writing jobs in order to make a living, like interviewing H. H. H. Mandern (even the name is meant to be a mockery), a famous sci-fi writer of a popular but melodramatic space opera series; writing travel articles that other writers didn’t want to take; and giving (sparsely attended) talks about his famous former lover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He was once nominated for an obscure gay literary prize, which he didn’t win; and another obscure literary prize in which the judges were mostly teenagers, which he did win. It’s part tongue-in-cheek commentary of the literary world, and part wry observations of the author about himself.

Besides this, there were also other things I liked about the book. The characterization of Less, for example, and the gently mocking and affectionate tone of the omniscient narrator of the novel. “From where I sit,” the narrator says in the opening line of the novel, “the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” Despite reaching fifty, Less is weak-willed, and he comes off as indecisive and naive, but he is ultimately a soft-hearted and sincere writer who yearns to be liked – a contrast to the jaded, antisocial, world-weary writers I often meet in other books. This passage more or less describes him:

Once, in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” [. . .] “You need to get an edge,” his old rival Carlos constantly told him in the old days, but Less had not known what that meant. To be mean? No, it meant to be protected, armored against the world, but can one “get” an edge any more than one can “get” a sense of humor? [. . .]

Whatever it is—Less never learned it. By his forties, all he has managed to grow is a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab.

Another thing that surprised me about this book is that it’s actually a love story, and I always have a soft spot for romance. I didn’t expect it from the blurb – I guess I expected it to be a journey of self-discovery – but the surprising, heartwarming ending made me realize otherwise.

That said, there were things about Less that didn’t really work for me. I couldn’t articulate why right after reading, since all I felt at the time was a quiet disappointment – as in, “That’s it?” I was expecting something more from a Pulitzer, but I couldn’t put my finger on what the “more” was.

I know why now, though. For one, the plot consists of things just sort of “happening” to Less – aside from initiating the trip across the globe to run away from his problems, Less hardly initiates anything else. Both good and bad things simply happen to him, and when they do, he doesn’t achieve any sort of new insight or growth. It definitely feels like deus ex machina is at work, which doesn’t sit well with me, especially since Less is a character-driven novel. Even the ending made me faintly suspicious, as heartwarming as it was, because it felt like love was magically called in to solve Less’s problems.

Another thing that left me dissatisfied was the surface exploration of important themes, like Less’s being a middle-aged gay writer. It’s briefly touched upon in the story, especially with narrator’s reflection that Less seems to be “the first homosexual ever to grow old”, but the phenomenon of being an aging homosexual felt like labels tacked on to Less, but not actually explored. Being middle-aged and gay seem like vague, external sources of unconscious anxiety, rather than a lived experience that Less had to grapple and come to terms with. This, I think, is a result of a flaw in Less’s characterization and in the choice of narrator. Casting Less as a soft-hearted, sincere, but ultimately naive character, and using a narrator who cannot fully articulate all of Less’s thoughts, limits the way these important themes can be delved into and explored.

All in all, though, Less was an enjoyable read. It did make me smile and laugh, especially while I was reading the mistranslations in the chapter on Germany. But, in the end, while the character was endearing, the storytelling was mediocre. It just didn’t live up to my expectations of it, especially with all the hype surrounding it.

Read from December 21 – 23, 2018 | Goodreads Account